Thursday, December 28, 2006

'Into Thin Air' & the Evolution of Wilderness Porn

I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about the last year or so's worth of Discovery Channel's "man vs. nature" shows: I Shouldn't Be Alive, Man vs. Wild, Survivorman, and Everest: Beyond the Limit. All four of the shows have the same basic formula - man goes into wilderness, wilderness kicks shit out of man, man somehow survives. It's a tried and true formula, of course. Minus the inclusion of pissed off gods and the supernatural, the above formula was laid down for us by Homer's Odyssey and has been used and re-used time and again in works of fiction and non-fiction, on television, in the movies, and in print. At its heart, such a formula allows for the display of the epic struggle of man to overcome ecological obstacles; on the other end it's an excuse to watch people being tortured by an uncaring world.

In attempting to come up with an umbrella label for these shows, I kept circling back to the term "nature-porn." Nothing else seemed to feel right - to say these are "adventure reality shows" is correct, but that term leaves out both the seriousness of the situations the stars/characters find themselves in, and the often mastabatory glee of the people involved in such hellish situations as being stranded in the middle of a desert, or dropped off at high altitude on some mountain, or left in a raft in the middle of the ocean. CBS' Amazing Race is an adventure reality show but the natural world isn't the focus - its a modern interpretation of Around the World in 80 Days while the Discovery Channel's shows have their literary ancestors in the works of Jack London, or work as an anti-John Muir. Nature is beautiful, absolutely, but it will also fuck you up - even if you're careful, even if you know what you're doing, even if you're prepared.

Nature-porn is a pre-existing term, of course, evolving from the earlier "eco-porn," which has its roots in a 1971 article by Chuck Worth for Mother Earth News, in which he uses the term to describe the harm a biodegradeable milk carton does to the environment; the carton breaks down, yes, but it takes such a long time that increasing our use of the carton does more harm than good. Martin Walsh argues: "Under the definition used by Worth, the reference to pornography simply functions as an emotive spotlight for the collision he sees occurring between the realms of ecological purity and obscene industrial consumerism. Implicit in Worth’s use of the term ‘porn’ is a primary concern with moral and ethical obscenity rather than sexual obscenity." Eco-porn, as desribed by Molly Ivins in 2001, is one where nature is being whored out to big business: "We’re all used to eco-porn by now; those beautiful television ads featuring some natural jewel, during which an announcer with a four-balls voice tells us how much Exxon or some other gross polluter is doing to keep our precious earth green."

Walsh takes the term and transforms it into nature-porn "since the pornographic mechanism is one that functions by design to incite desire in the viewer and, through the associative power of images of natural environments, to cause the viewer/consumer to recall favorable impressions that will influence their future choice of products, services and experiences. [...] Central to this debate are the issues of sustainability and diversity of natural systems, and our implicit responsibility to the natural environment that sustains all life. If we then start with the premise that nature-porn imagery attempts to deliver the natural environment as a commodity, in the same manner that pornography delivers the human body."

The accepted definitions of "eco-porn" and "nature-porn," then, don't sufficiently meet my own definition as applied to the Discovery programs. I have problems with Worth's moralistic component (I'm all for consenting adults to do what they want, whether that's taping themselves having sex or climbing in high altitude), with Ivins' anti-corporate image component (in eco-porn, comapnies use the environment to diminish/alter their public image, while in sexual porn companies use sex to reinforce their public image), and with Walsh's premise that nature-porn treats the natural world as sex-porn treats the body.

In all of the shows it isn't the natural world that's being commodified by itself, it's the hardship that natural world forces a human body to experience/endure. In this, it's much like London's Alaskan naturalism, where the world is both beautiful and harsh. Is Everest being commodified in Beyond the Limit? Absolutely, but so are the climbers who are enduring the climb, the climate, and each other.

I've chosen to use the term "wilderness porn," to describe a text that focuses its pleasure on the grotesque endurance of man in harsh wilderness.

Using a term like "wilderness" comes with its own set of problems, of course, with its inherent questions over how "untouched by man" a place has to be to still be wilderness. For my pruposes, all I'm concerned about with "wilderness" is simply that its an overwhelmingly natural environment that operates on its own outside the control of humanity. (I'm still working on it, but that's a start.) Put simply, however constructed, the place runs by rules of "the wild/natural" more than it does by the rules of man, and the various means of control the producers of each text attempts to exert on that "wild place" is how the "porn" is constructed. So while Everest has certainly been commodified and while the governments on both sides of the mountain have enacted certain laws, once you move above base camp its still you vs. the mountain, the altitude, and the weather.

The only reference I can find to the term "wilderness porn" comes from Tasmanian phtographer Martin Walch, who defines it as a proces where "wilderness was once portrayed as threatening, the ‘lair of the beast’, but contemporary meanings are more likely to evoke pristine, virginal or untouched qualities." While not completely parallel with my own definition, I think Walch's conceptualization of wilderness as alternately threatening and pristine works better than eco-porn and nature-porn. In my conceptualization of wilderness porn, both impluses - the threatening and the pristine - are in play.

Bear Grylls doesn't parachute into places that are easy to escape or survive, after all, on Man vs. Wild. He lands in spots where one might have to piss on his own shirt and wrap it around his head to get through the day.

The point seems to be that we'll have some form or "Eww, that's gross" reaction without actually changing the channel. Like a horror movie, viewers are enticed to witness other people experience the unpleasant. The probability is that we're not likely to ever be in that situation, but thanks to Bear we know, if we have to, we can use our own piss to keep us cool. With shows like Man vs. Wild and Survivorman (which is roughly the same show, though in typically harsher environs and without a camera guy along for support as Les Stroud films himself), we know the protagonist is going to get out, or else the episode would either not be shown or it'd be hyped as a "final" episode.

Shows like I Shouldn't Be Alive and Everest: Beyond the Limit, however, do carry with it the added "bonus" that some people might actually not make it through the entire 60 minutes. Beyond the Limit, especially, seems to continually death-tease us by raising the possibility that someone might not make it down alive from their ascent. Death is a very real possibility on Everest, of course, and the doc takes great relish in exploiting that potential outcome.

The difference in the two shows is that Alive features people who often unwittingly place themselves in great harm (say, a couple stranded in their car by a snow storm, or who wander off the marked trail into the heart of a rain forest) while everyone on Everest chooses to be on Everest. Because of this, Alive really ratchets up the melodrama. The format of the show is that the actual people tell you, confessional style, about their harrowing adventure which you then see recreated by actors in intercut scenes. There's a lot of crying and hurt, which runs counter to the almost perverse joy people take on Everest, though death is as real a possibility. The difference, again, is in choice, but both origins can be milked for the same voyeuristic results.

I want to give credit to Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air for putting this into focus for me. In Krakauer's acclaimed personal accounting of the 1996 Everest disaster we see an insider's account of what gets you on the mountain, and then off again. I don't want to dwell extensively on the text at this point (I may well do so later) but what marked Into Thin Air out for me is the continual contrast between Krakauer's own desire to ascend/descend Everest and his worsening physical and mental condition during the expedition. When Everest stops being an idea and starts being a conglomeration of rocks, snow, and ice, the dangers of that environment come to the fore.

Krakauer's been widely attacked by those who appeared in his book and the relatives of his fellow climbers, but those attacks often ring hollow to me. Krakauer, time and again, openly discusses how clouded judgment and memory become at high altitude; we, as readers, can take or leave the "truth" of his experience but what seems clear to me is that Krakauer gives us the truth of his memory of the experience. As he states in the text, he interviewed as many people as he could after the fact and when his own memory was proven wrong, he admits it in the text, including the tragic "lie" he told about his encounter with Andy Harris/Martin Adams in which neither Krakauer nor Adams has any reason to doubt their own memory of what happened until talking with one another well after the fact and noting how pieces of two different memories overlapped in key places thus throwing the totality of the veracity of both into question.

While all of these texts come at the "man vs. wilderness" formula from differing origins, all do follow the basic structure: man enters wilderness, wilderness hammers man, man (usually) survuives. The Discovery Channel shows continually reinforce the idea that you need to be prepared when entering the wilderness, yet what Krakauer (and to a lesser extent, Beyond the Limit) articulate is that preparedness only mean you are less likely to be killed, and certainly not impossible to kill.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Bush's New Environmental Czar? The Polar Bears.

The U.S. Department of the Interior is proposing to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.

According to Jeffrey Kluger of TIME, the implications for the listing are incredibly significant as a matter of U.S. public policy: "The government must effectively own up to global warming as the likely cause of the problem. For a White House that has long questioned whether human-influenced climate change exists at all, this is a shift not just in policy, but in the very foundations of its environmental orthodoxy."

It shouldn't be all that surprising if this listing does, in fact, move successfully through the process, that something like dwindling numbers of polar bears are the tipping point. When science (or anything, really) remains in the abstract, critics have a much easier time defeating (or at least deflecting) the argument. The problem of global warming hasn't had an effective "face" or symbol; proponents for change have argued statistics to an audience that largely doesn't care, or can't comprehend the immensity of the issue. But when you slap a polar bear down on the table as the face of the issue, people might finally begin to notice.

At least, it seems the Bush Administration finally has begun to listen.

The key to the change in thought (and I don't want to overstate the change at this early stage - there is still a long way to go before the polar bear becomes officially listed as a threated species) appears to a four decade study of one of the nineteen polar bear population centers in the world. According to Kluger:

Perhaps the best studied of the groups is the Western Hudson Bay population, which scientists have been monitoring since the 1960s. For decades, membership of the group remained relatively stable, at about 1,200 adults and cubs. Between 1987 and 1994, however — precisely the years in which the rise in global temperatures have become the most evident — the number plummeted to 935, or a die-off of 22%. And that is only one of the five overall polar bear populations listed as declining by the multinational World Conservation Union. It's not just the fact that the bears are dying that's so alarming, but the way they're dying — and all of it points to a warmer world. Spring ice that the bears rely on as fishing platforms has been breaking up about three weeks earlier than it used to. Though polar bears don't hibernate, they do retreat to dens in the winter to escape bad weather. When they emerge, they badly need to replenish their fat supplies, and slashing three weeks off the dining schedule does not help. Scientists who track bear populations report that fewer cubs are surviving into adulthood — never mind the ones that aren't getting born at all — and those adults that are observed are often thinner than they used to be. Some bears have been resorting to cannibalism to survive and others are simply turning up drowned, trapped in open water as they try to paddle to ice floes that have melted away.

Even though it's holiday season, enviromentalists aren't universally accepting this gift at face value. The absence of the Bushies usual stonewalling is causing some to wonder whether this is a stalling tactic. I think that's a valid concern, but while the Bush Administration has certainly been in the pocket of big business (specifically here, the electric and oil conglomerates) and slow to warm to the dangers of global warming (no pun intended), they don't rate a zero on environmental matters. The Bush Administration has, in recent months, agreed to several so-called "debt-for-nature" swaps, where the United States has forgiven "third world" debt in exchange for those countries preserving their own natural environments under the Tropical Forest Conservation Act.

Additionally, in June of this past year, Bush created the largest marine reserve in the world when he designated 140,000 square miles of Hawai'i's northwest as a protected space. The Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument is larger than all national parks combined.

While I'm not arguing we should all pat the Bushies on the back and not monitor the process of the polar bear listing, the fact remains the Endangered Species Act can't offer the bears full protection until they're listed, and they can't be listed until the listing is proposed. The fact that this listing might come with an acknowledgment from the Bush Administration that global warming is happening in the actual world and not just in the minds of greenie liberals might end up ranking as one of the great side-benefits in environmental history.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

A Few Thoughts On Some Grizzly Men

A colleague recently gave me a copy of the much discussed (in these circles, I suppose) documentary, Grizzly Man for Christmas. After hearing tales of its mysterious content for nigh on a year now, I am happy to report that I have seen it and, like most, I have a few words to say about it. And if the “Blog-o-sphere” (I shuddered when I typed that) is worth anything, it’s the ability to hold opinions.

For those of you new to the Grizzly Man carnival (not necessarily the “Phenomenon” I have heard it called), the bottom line is this: Timothy Treadwell spends thirteen summers in Alaska with Grizzlies. On the eve of his disembarking the National Park that was his home, happenstance brings him back to the park after attempting to leave and he and girlfriend are eaten by a bear. Many strange characters fit into the mix, but this is basically the “story” that famed documentarian Werner Herzog goes about telling in shaping some 100 hours of Treadwell’s footage from the final few summers.

I will go ahead and eschew full discussions of whether or not Treadwell “deserved” what he got (I think he both did and didn’t), rhapsodizing about whether his and girlfriend’s being eaten was tragic (it is and isn’t), or how he should have acted (God knows if he had to be there at all). Instead, I want to toss in my two cents briefly on Herzog’s choices as a director.

The structure of the film is itself an accomplishment if only because of the all the places it could have gone but didn’t. Herzog is a capable enough director to know who to talk to in order to get a complex range of responses to the tale. The pilot who hauled out the autopsy containers was pretty clear in his unsympathetic view of the killing. Even his friends in their alignment for Treadwell’s summertime expeditions, though they don’t say it, seem ill-at-ease when discussing it, as if they know what they should say, but are having a hard time making that fit with what actually happened. Not that they should be maligned for their honesty—Herzog is clever enough to test each one’s conviction in the interviews. They stay the course, always on Treadwell’s side. Herzog does a great job of getting the array of views from those involved.

As one colleague’s use of the film in class has shown, the average viewer is more likely than not going to come away from the film thinking that Treadwell is just plain crazy. However, it’s not Herzog that makes you think that. He is clear in many places to show his admiration for Treadwell as a director, pausing several times simply to enjoy the footage. (Some of it is really spectacular.) He also holds his interest in technique, showing Tim pausing between takes to gather his thoughts and re-shoot. However, that Treadwell used the camera as a diary is what makes the story for Herzog, a person looking for themselves in the non-human world.

That is not to say that Treadwell’s story is just a nuts and bolts storytelling effort or clinical analysis. The wall between diary and document is blurred and begs for discussion, conjecture, and argument on the viewer’s part. Even in the refusal (or perhaps because of the refusal) on Herzog’s part to cast judgments on Treadwell, there is still tension. When he disagrees, he says so. The most notable example is the almost dichotomous reaction to Treadwell’s disapproval of things that upset the harmony of the Alaskan wilderness. Treadwell doesn’t take too well to the dead grizzly cub’s arm left to rot, a result of a male grizzly’s paternal controls of female lactation cycles. So too with the dead fox killed (at Treadwell’s uncorrected insistence) by wolves in the night. At this point Herzog openly challenges Treadwell’s world-view, saying that, counter Treadwell, he “believe[s] the common character of the universe is not harmony, but hostility, chaos and murder.” I can’t imagine that either one is right, though, both too highly polarized in diametric positions; neither seems as easy as they make it.

This is Herzog’s skill as a director made apparent and also his humanity come clean: he never says at any point that Treadwell is unstable, letting Treadwell’s images and words tell the story At the same time, he argues with him—that is, actively engages him—with an opposing ideology. Some might say that ideology is too strong a word here. However, this must be ideologically driven in that it is the result of a belief system. Treadwell’s is a system of implied love, a word he uses to describe his feelings toward the bears almost too many times to count in the film, while Herzog’s is a clinical eye for destruction. That is Herzog’s humanity, his letting his own beliefs slip into his film without any sort of justification. Herzog shows you Treadwell’s position, then tells in his narratorial authority his own. The tension in the film, then, is not about whether Treadwell lives or dies—you get that at the outset of the film—but how Herzog will resolve the seemingly bizarre impulses that Treadwell followed with his own pessimistic view of the world. It’s a great process to watch happen.

Amusingly, I think that this tension presents a new problem that Roger Ebert hinted at in the close of his Chicago Sun-Times review. He ponders a bit about how he feels at the end of the film about a guy who essentially played with bears who then turned on him, noting “a certain admiration for his courage, recklessness, idealism.” He closes simply: “He deserves Werner Herzog.” At first this seemed like a bit of a left-handed compliment, even a little grumpy as Ebert’s review dwells a bit on the bleakness Herzog brings to filmmaking (not just this one). However, seen as a result of both collaboration and argument, the comment makes more sense than maybe it’s supposed to (sorry, Rog). Herzog was put in a tough spot for the maker of a documentary, in that he has to craft someone else’s footage, sprinkled with his own, into a manageable tale without actually being able to work with the originator. On top of that, he is stuck with an originator who can at times be adolescent, hyperbolic, inane, saccharine, annoying, and utterly off the deep end, no closer to his own mind than the next guy. That should spell trouble from the beginning.

In a way, then, Grizzly Man ends up highly flawed, no closer to presenting a coherent picture than before, asking a great deal more questions that it answers, its director constantly at odds with the material. If you don’t believe me, just check out extra feature on “The Grizzly Man Sessions” where Herzog tries to direct unfamiliar session musicians to make a soundtrack in just two short days; he seems very polar, between completely pleased and completely frustrated by his lack of control over what would be without him a very organic process. At the same time, the film has in the all the makings of a perfect documentary made by two people with a deep interest in the subjects. For Treadwell, it’s the bears, for Herzog it’s Treadwell. That give and take between the two makes for some great moments and poses a good many questions that deserve careful consideration without Herzog’s being banal or amateur enough simply to ask them.